Jello Biafra
by Interviews

Jello Biafra has done about a million projects. From the seminal Dead Kennedys to his fititing team up with DOA to his surprising combo with Melvins to his newest band Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine to the berserk, industrial pummeling of Lard, the J-man has done it all. Really, you could fill an entire book with any one of his albums. But, to get just a taste of his works-a-plenty, we had Jello tell us a little bit about almost every single one of his albums (and that's a lot of albums, mind you). Check out Jello's reflections on his LPs below. Later this week, we'll sit down with the reigning champ himself for an in-depth interview.

Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables

It definitely made a splash in England and Europe, because we already made one with the “California Uber Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia” singles. But in America, hardly any underground punk band had ever been able to make an album. People didn’t have money then. There were only so many dollars to go around. So, when the Plugz recorded and album, they recorded it live and other bands did a show to get enough money so they could make the record because it was a victory for the whole scene- just that somebody got something out. It was at that level.

We knew we would be one of the first ones. Slash had moved from being a fanzine to a label and had put out the Germs and X. I don’t think they had put out the Blasters yet. So, for us to be able to get a whole album out was pretty cool. At that point, there was enough momentum, I was like “Let’s gamble.” A lot of early bands, by the time they put out an album, the really great early songs had been lost to time. I’m a librarian’s kid! I want everything to be documented so I can play it in my bedroom, God Damn it! All those Sleepers songs that go through my head that they never recorded! The Screamers, too, especially!

But anyway, I thought “let’s make Fresh Fruit the early songs.” We already had “Bleed for Me,” “Moon Over Marin,” “Too Drunk to Fuck,” and some of the others by then. We had been doing “Rawhide” and “Kepone Factory” practically since the first gig.

It occurred to me years after Dead Kennedys was gone, how deep and important method acting has played in my lyrical style. I have all these you-are-there very visual scenarios. And trying to say things in a different ways. “We could have another song about how bad nuclear war is, but can we say it in a different way? What about from the Pentagon’s view? Even the Carter admission is talking about this Neutron Bomb that kills people but doesn’t harm valuable property…” Aha! “Kill the Poor was born!”

Dead Kennedys - Plastic Surgery Disasters

I was really inspired by the initial blast of positive energy of the DC hardcore scene, and I was getting really tired of living with substance-addled roommates. I thought straight edge was great even though I still drunk some, even to this day on occasion.

I wanted to do something like that. We had these early songs, and wanted to go more in the “Cambodia” Direction and do Plastic Surgery which is still my favorite of the Dead Kennedys albums. It’s darker, more uniquely us. Ironic, considering what the other guys claimed, it was more of a group written album.

Dead Kennedys - Frankenchrist

By the time this album rolled around, there were some tensions in the band. It took some time to regroup because Faulty Products had ripped us off so badly- the independent arm of IRS. It took a while to put pieces together. Faulty Products was the independent distribution of IRS. The “M” in A&M records, which distributed IRS, was Jerry Moss, who was reportedly a yachting buddy of Ted Kennedy, so no way a band named Dead Kennedys was going to go out through A&M. It was a blessing in disguise as far as I’m concerned.

By the time we made it, I felt really strongly that punk and hardcore were growing musically and growing into other area. I think Husker du had already released Zen Arcade by then – my favorite Husker album – so I thought, “you know, if we’re gonna still matter, we need to put something out that isn’t just a repeat of ourselves or we’ll end up on a certain track.” No offense to the UK Subs, but that is somebody who kind of comes to mind. We have to show people that we can still surprise them- thus the Frankenchrist album.

Frankenchrist was the first concept album that I did. The second would be White People and the Damage Done. I didn’t even realize that was a concept album until I saw the infamous Giger painting that became part of the artwork and triggered the obscenity charge. That got my brain spinning like good art work does. I realized that if I tweaked a lyric here or there, it would be one long thing about the impact of Reagan America as depicted so well in Giger’s Landscape #20- the Frankenchrist Poster.

Dead Kennedys - Bedtime for Democracy

During Frankenchrist, we did record some hardcore stuff, but that ended up on the last album. By then, we knew we were about to split. We tried to gather up the loose ends and make one more. It’s a statement as to how well those albums hold up- people still debate which is the best one, which one is the most influential in their lives- so I get a lot of that about Fresh Fruit, but the I was getting everybody from Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers to the God bullies to Hank III citing Plastic Surgery Disasters as their favorites.

It turns out some of the most interesting stuff I liked, they were feeding off it too. That album damn near killed me, but I’m glad we were able to finish it and get it out there.

Dead Kennedys - Give me Convenience or Give Me Death

After we split, I thought even though it’s hard to get 7-inches stocked, people who only have the 12-inches have never heard songs like “Too Drunk to Fuck” or the b-sides like “In sight” or “The man with the dogs.” I put together Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, the outtakes and singles album, that serves as a quasi-greatest hits album.

Lard - Power of Lard

Power of Lard is an EP, but I guess it may feel like an album because the B-side is so long. That came out of kind of a budding creative relationship with Al Jourgensen. I knew Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher from when they had the Denver Wax Trax store. So, when I was in Chicago, I would go see them and pillage the Chicago store. The Denver store still exists, by the way- same owners that Jim and Dannie sold it to. Still one of the best record store in the world.

So, one day, Jim played me a test pressing of a 7-inch that never even came out, by one of their first artists- a band called Ministry. I was like, “Wow, this really well done post-punk.” I like a lot of the top of line British post-punk. I saw Bauhaus in London the week In the Flat Field came out. Boy, was that a great show! I really liked it. Those first 12-inches by Ministry were really toned down by what I had heard. But, the next time I was there one of them played a one-off with Ministry featuring Iggy Pop. That was song called “Fire Engine.” It was really hard-edged electric tinged rock- I really wish that that relationship had gone on a little longer. But, I always knew that Al had this other side to him besides the synth-pop stuff.

After he got away from Arista, and did the “Everyday is Halloween” single, I realized it was really well done. And then out comes the Pailhead single, “I will refuse” which blew me through the fuckin’ wall. They aren’t credited on there, but I knew “that has got to be Ian MacKaye on vocals.” I knew it had to be Al. And sure enough it was. It was most insane, raging Big Black song that Big Black had never made. The sound was also fuller because, by then, Al had his dance floor disco skills down in the production department. Wall of sound, always.

I knew I had to get back together with the guy. He keeps going up and down the stairs at Wax Trax, and he’s always friendly. We were about to put out the new Christian Lunch release, and I thought Al could remix it. That didn’t go so well.

So I said, "well, why don’t we just try to make something ourselves." Al said, “yeah, that’s kind of what I wanted to do anyways.” The first thing we had to do was think of something to call ourselves. The first thing that popped into my head was ”Lard.” And Al fell on the floor laughing, so Lard was born. I didn’t bring any lyrics. So, Power of Lard was one liners that I remembered or things that I cut out of the Chicago Tribune. Once it was all laid out, I realized that it did have a theme . “The power of Lard” being the way we control as much of society as possible by making people scared of their own appearance and so self conscious.

Lard - The Last Temptation of Reid

Then we decided to make more and so along came The Last Temptation of Reid, with Reid the studio manager forced to pose on the back album cover or else we told him that we weren’t going to pay him. So he put on the shades and unbuttoned his shirt so his bling was showing, and his girlfriend was laughing at him just out of frame of the photo I took. That whole scene at Chicago Tracks with Reid as the unwitting ring master- ahahaha! If I could ever put that together as a coherent script, it would be a Marx brothers movie.

Jello Biafra with NoMeansNo – The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy

I did have some acting experience, very small, even before I was in bands, and had a little bit under my belt. I got offered a part in this movie being shot up in Vancouver called Terminal City Ricochet. I was kind of in on the ground floor because the producer had put on a Dead Kennedys show at University of British Columbia. DOA’s manager was also involved so there was a lot of cross-pollination going on. Where there’s falling Space Junk from Out of Space in the film- which apparently came from my spoken word track.

So I was cast in this movie. In this movie, Terminal City, which was Vancouver’s original name, was one of the last livable cities on Earth. I playa kind of Oliver North/ Karl Rove/ G. Gordon Liddy sidekick- Michael Flynn would be an even better example to the dictator slash mayor, who is masterfully played by Peter Breck, who won the Emmy as Nick Barkley in The Big Valley. Film noir fans would know him as the lead actor in that Sam Fuller classic, Shock Corridor.

It’s kind of hard to follow the movie because there were five different screenwriters plus a director who was imposed by the financial backers. Basically, this mayor rigs an election by framing a musician as a terrorist… does that sound like the future… or does that sound like the recent past? There were some flaws in that movie, but I’m really proud of it. Shit, every single national election is more and more like Terminal City Ricochet. Peter Breck’s character, the way he played him, I thought of Rick Perry, but more and more I think of Trump- In the move, Peter Breck’s character got to be mayor dictator because he owned the popular hockey team and had a reality show. It’s a hoot.

Maybe I was trying to wear too many hats. I tried to do a decent job acting for the camera, and I had barely acted for the camera before. Wrangling the soundtrack rights for AT, and coming up with songs for the soundtrack. Maybe my character suffered a little bit as a result.

But, at the same time, originally it was supposed to be one song with DOA and one song with Nomeansno. But, in both cases, it mushroomed into doing an album with each band. So, there are two different versions of “Falling Space Junk.” In the movie, there is one set of lyrics, and on the album, it’s sort of a sequel and is a different version with Nomeansno.

Another one that cross pollinated back out of the movie is “Bruce’s Diary” off the Nomeansno album. My character is this out of control egomaniac, secret police persona named Bruce Coddle- I was trying to dig into my method acting character. They had me staying at this high rise apartment and across the hill were these other high rise apartments that didn’t close their windows until it had been dark for a little while. So, I got to keep all these apartments under surveillance. I even sunk to the point where I tried masturbating as Bruce Coddle and luckily it occurred to me to slip on the tape recorder and so I narrated some of the stuff that was going on and boiled that back down to the lyrics of “Bruce’s Diary.”

I think it was a major influence on my stage show. You can’t seep too deep into a character, especially when you are trying to rock at the same time. I guess in a way Jello Biafra is yet another character. I ask the people in any movie that I’m in, “Please don’t address me as Jello,” because then I start getting confused as three different people at once!

Jello Biafra with DOA – Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors

Both bands were on Alternative Tentacles at the time and their studio sound were kind of done in the same way. Both were done by the brilliant recording engineer Cecil English. I came in on the first mix of one of the songs with DOA, “That’s Progress,” and I said, “This sounds exactly like a DOA mix. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. What else can we do with all this Al Jourgensen and Geza X studio production influence that has crept into me in my own weird way? What can we do, to do more with this?”

I noticed all four room mics were off. Cecil knew the studio so well he could just hang the mics in certain areas so instruments wouldn’t bleed into each other very much. Amazing! Once I turned all four room mics on, it sounded like I was raging away in the practice room. Yeah! Let’s make it sound like this!

Tumor Circus

This was another one of those magic accidents. Charlie Tolnay, who unfortunately we lost recently, he died the same day or the day after Gant Heart. He was visiting from Australia. He and his band Grong Grong had just blown me away when Dead Kennedys played with them in Adelaide. You’ll notice most British and European bands are more interested towards pleasing the audience and not interested in flipping out and being confrontational towards the audience, like say, Flipper, or the Butthole Surfers, or the Crucifux. Grong Grong was one of those kind of bands. The bass player looked like he was Will Shatter gone through the washing machine a few too many times. The drummer looked like Tim Yohannon with a pompadour laughing at the rest of the band. Then, there was a guy with these weird cigarettes, rolled up in his sleeve, as unique as Ted Falconi, playing guitar. Then, a singer with a balaclava and a cowboy hat, pacing the stage yelling at everyone! Hahaha!

With all the great bands we played with in Australia, great and refreshing during the ’83 tour, Grong Grong was the one that stood out over all of them. So the chance to actually make some noise with Charlie while he was hanging out in San Francisco after his band King Snake Roost finished their tour, I had to do something.

At first I was just going to borrow Mike Morasky from Steel Pole Bathtub, but then Klaus declined, so I was like, let’s just get all the Steel Poles. It worked amazingly. We thought we were just going to make a 7-inch inch, but after a couple days in a rehearsal place, we had along 12-inch and they were making up more music on the spot.

At first, I just did the vocals in gibberish to get the music arranged. At the time, I was also working on the Lard and Nomeansno album, so it took another year to get the vocals recorded and mixed. So, Tumor Circus came out quite a bit later. I always really liked that record. Next to With Trials, it might be my most demented record. Maybe more so.

Crimes against music going on all over the place! There was even an argument in the Articles of Faith van. Vic Bondi put on Tumor Circus and the other members told him to “turn off that noise!”

I think if I had put it out with a smokestack on the cover, and maybe a Chicago or Minneapolis address, it would have gone way further than it did. I’m really proud of that album.

During that time, we were still in sticker shock from “limited edition colored vinyl from Sub Pop” or “limited edition colored vinyl from Amphetamine Reptile!” and usually the music was pretty good, too. It was like, wait a minute, five dollar singles! Six dollar singles! We’re used to paying two or three dollars! What the fuck is this shit? Who do these people think they are!

Well, okay… if people see records as an investment, I’m going to make my own statement. Everything I’ve done, I’ve always tried to keep in print for an affordable price. So, things don’t go sky high on eBay and only certain kinds of rich people can afford it. That’s not what my music is for.

I thought, “I know how to get back at these people. We’ll put out a limited edition picture disc, a picture disc no less, with an x-ray of a two headed baby on it, and we’ll put a hole in it so you can’t play it and can only possess it." Ironically, the only drill press hole they could do was wide enough for a 45, so all but three seconds were obliterated in the single. We even out a sticker on the jacket, “Stop! This has a hole in it so you can only possess it and not play it!” And it sold out in 15 working days. Granted, there were a few returns. “Hey, I didn’t know there was a hole in it!” It says so right on the fucking jacket! We did sell out of the hole version eventually, but we still have the regular black vinyl version if people want to actually hear it.

Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon - Prairie Home Invasion

I always wanted to do something like that. The original idea was to have Evan Johns on it. But, Mojo called up Greg at the label and it turned out that Evan couldn’t be on it for the most part. Sadly, we lost him earlier this year. Evan, and Grant Heart, and Charlie Tolnay almost all at once- it has kind of thrown me… kind of knocked me in the fucking gut. It always seems to come in threes, so hopefully that’s the end of that. Stay healthy out there people.

I originally dismissed Mojo as kind of College humor. But, then he came out to the audience with “Everybody repeat after me! Ollie North! Ollie North!” And I though, “Oh God, he’s pandering to that?” And then, he went “is an asshole!” And the audience just dropped! He did all the verses that I didn’t even know for “This is Your Land” with some Mojo speech-fying.

I went “Wow, we have more in common than I thought.” That was a real good time. I was interested in working in a different world. I wasn’t necessarily interested in “doing “Let’s Go Burn Old Nashville Down,” but then my rental car would only get KDET, an ultra-commercial country station in Austin, and within in a day of hearing that, I said, “Okay, now I know why Mojo wants to do this song!” I was all in. The other major bonus of working with Mojo was working with his amazing keyboard player, Pete Gordon who he calls "Wet Dog."

You’ll notice he resurfaces in the New Orleans Raunch and soul all-stars. I only knew him from the Jerry Lee Lewis moves that he would pull with Mojo Nixon and the Toadliquors. Only at the recording studio was did I realize how many different ways he can color a song depending on the different mood the song might have. I realize now that he ain’t gonna leave Houston. He co-owns the Continental Club and doing is pretty well, but damn, if that shouldn’t play keyboards for the Rolling Stones.

Jello and the Melvins – Never Breathe What You Can’t See and Sieg Howdy!

After all these years, the Melvins were coming on like gangbusters at Slims. After all these years of not quite digging the Melvins , suddenly, they are completely blowing me away. Then, they start to play, of all things, “Halo of Flies.” “There’s no way they're going to play… they’re playing ‘Halo of Flies!’” So I said, “okay, now is the time to really start liking the Melvins.”

Either that time or the next time, by that time, the ugly trial with the other ex-members of the Dead Kennedys had gone down. And Buzz and Dale came to me saying that they were very, very angry with how that had gone down and how I had been treated, plus he launch of the fake Dead Kennedy, often with my picture in the ad.

They said to me, how about we go on tour and we’ll play those songs, but we’ll play them right. I said, “Well, if we’re gonna do that, why don’t we just play new songs?” So, that project was launched.

Ironically, Buzz was bringing in punkier riffs for me and I was bringing in some slower, stoner-rock stuff to play to the Melvins. I thought “Islamic bomb” might not need two drummers if Dale does it. So, I thought, “this is my chance.” I brought in that song and am so glad that I did. That was in part, inspired by Sandy Nelson and the Persuaders.

Buzz told me later that the opening riff to “Caped Crusader” was just him noodleing around and apparently I said, “Stop! Stop! Stop! That reminds me of Monster Magnet!” Then I got typical comment back from Buzz about Monster Magnet. But, I was like, “No! No! No! I actually like Monster Magnet!” I like them a lot, actually. He didn’t tell me until later that the riff was his standard noodle around riff in sound check and he had never turned it into a song. They also astonished me in that they had no plans to record “Halo of Flies.” They already knew it, so they just recorded it and put me on, singing instead.

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine - Audacity of Hype

Near the time of the Biafra 5-0 shows, the Melvins had already gotten Cody and Jarred and really wanted to go off and work their own thing, and boy did that turn out well. When Buzz said to me, very excitedly, “I think we’re just beginning to tap in to what we can do with this lineup,” I thought “okay, that’s probably the end of the Jelvins.” Dale was saying, “you know, you really need to get your own band again.”

Then, around that time, I saw Iggy and the Stooges at the Warfield and thought, “Oh shit! I turn 50 in about six months, I better do something! So, after all these years, I had a deadline and finally the band happened. So I booked Biafra 5-0 for my 50th and got GSM going. We didn’t have a name yet, so we called ourselves the Axis. We had Kimo ball and we were a double guitar lineup.

Billy Gould had to go back to Faith No More who were just reforming and said “Look, I can’t do this anymore unless we record now.” We recorded and we had enough stuff and some experimental improv stuff to put in that we got Audacity of Hype and Advanced Methods of Questioning.

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine - White People and the Damage Done

Things were getting so out of hand with tea party shit and “Cut the budget, cut the budget! Cut spending” And Nancy Pelosi said, “it was the year of austerity I’ll just go along with the corporate agenda.” And people were suffering unbearably. People are suffering more now… Maybe White People and the Damage Done was about the Trump era, but too early.

The only other concept album that I’ve ever done was Frankenchrist. This time, the concept was more planned. It was going to be anti-fucking-austerity.

God, why should I write another song about the brutal impact of homelessness when I could just revive “Burger of Wrath” which first turns up on the Mojo Nixon album? I knew it could be a rock and roll country song, but also a punk song. I was originally thinking making it kind of Les Thugs, but Ralph Spight wanted to make it more country. I didn’t really want to do that. We jammed around with it, so the version you hear on this album is dual guitars, almost southern rock Allman Brothers style… and I’m actually liking it! No other punk band would even try a thing like this! Yeah, another feather in my cap!

Jello Biafra - Speed Demon

The back cover is somebody with a ton of zits! I got it out of a medical textbook on severe acne in a thrift store. It’s not even the worst one, by a long shot! That came about when Reverend Horton Heat called me and ask me to contribute to a Rev Horton tribute album out on Yep Roc. I think they had Hank III and Mike Ness on it. I wanted to do “Jezebel” even though Rev didn’t write it, but the manager was like, “no, no, no, you have to do a song that Jim wrote.” So, “shit, let’s just do two songs.” I really wanted to do “Jezebel” because I had a vision for that song. It dates back to at least the ‘50s.

The first version I heard was a balls out version by the Controllers on the Tooth and Nail comp. I really liked the song and learned a little bit about it. The Controllers and the garage rock versions don’t have the bridge in it- maybe because it’s too hard to sing. I’m not even sure Reverend Horton Heat’s cover version, which inspired me to do the song, has the bridge. I thought, “I can actually pull off both parts- the bridge version and the punked up version.” I got three guys from Zen Guerilla, minus Marcus Durant the singer. They had broken up by then but they were all still close, at least the three are. So, we did that.

For the Rev song, “I was like, what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?” Then along comes “Speed Demon,” which is only on this compilation of Deep Ellum bands, which is an artsy district in Dallas. I really liked the song and I thought “no one else is gonna do this, so let’s do it!”

Finally, is this song really about cars or is it about a speed freak. It turned out it really was about a woman that Jim thought was doing too many drugs, hence the acne on the cover. In the cover, is a really glamorous shot with a woman in a bra that could poke your eye out and that’s the “before” pic. Then, the next panel is the “After” which is a clipping from Weekly World News which was supposed to be “the world’s ugliest dog!” So, all four panels connect!

Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars - A Walk on Jindal's Splinters

Bill Davis of Dash Rip Rock and Fred Leblanc dared me after a show we played in November, "We want you to come to New Orleans to do an enire set of soul and rhytm and blues! We’ll back you!" And so the challenge was on. I got them to put some garage on. I got them to do "House of the Rising Sun." We even pulled off the Wilson Pickett version with “Land of 1,000 dances.” I’m really proud of that. We barely had time to rehearse. I wound up finding the horn section- I knew one horn palyer, which is Josh Cohen from Morning 40 Federation. He brings in a New Orleans Funeral march procession with a Sosaphone and a Baritone, which is a smaller version of a Tuba. Plus, two Saxophones- one of them his. We had areally great Trumpet player, and Wetdog, Mojo Nixon’s amazing keyboard player. This was a really fun thing to do.